“Slender Man” and the Monstrous Truth
You can’t fake the secret sauce of coming-of-age horror.
The potency of id and ego, innocence, and discovery colliding like air masses and creating ominous weather patterns. The flushed intensity of friendship... and antagonism. The ecstatic intoxication of a folie à deux. Well, I guess this is growing up?
As recently as Thoroughbreds, which came out in March of this year, we have seen a multitude of movies plumbing the combustible potential of friendship through the lens of adolescence and young adulthood, especially girlhood. Slender Man, now in theaters, is one such recent release.
Written by David Birke, who also penned the script for Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, and directed by Stomp the Yard’s Sylvain White, Slender Man is based on a mythos crowdsourced from the Internet that began back in 2009, as an entry into a paranormal contest on the Something Awful forum. Memes are often inspired by movies, but this may be one of the first movies to be directly inspired by a meme. It takes the “viral” part of viral content literally, portraying a group of four friends who, while trying to debunk a faceless monster that has proliferated across the Internet, unwittingly unleash it on themselves. And though it had a nationwide release, it was not shown in and around the Milwaukee, Wisconsin metro area. For residents there, the movie promised to open wounds that were still a little too fresh. It was only four years ago, after all, that the area was shaken by a grisly crime perpetrated by a pair of preteens against one of their peers.
In 2014, twelve-year old friends, social outcasts, and avid Slender Man researchers Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser lured their school friend into the woods for a game of hide-and-seek after a sleepover, and stabbed her nineteen times with a kitchen knife, leaving her for dead. As their victim crawled to safety and was eventually rescued, narrowly surviving the attack, they washed up in a Walmart and wandered their small town of Waukesha, waiting for the Slender Man to accept their blood sacrifice and make them his “proxies.” Two years later, Sony Screen Gems announced a movie project based on the Slender Man character and mythos.
Back in 1994, a director by the name of Peter Jackson made a movie called Heavenly Creatures, starring a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. It is based on the true story of the Parker-Hulme murder of 1954, which was catalyzed by the fervent and creatively fertile friendship that blossomed between two teenagers: working-class Pauline (Lynskey) and posh Juliet (Winslet), who bonded over the trauma of health scares and hospitalizations that marked their early childhoods. Soon, they begin to weave an elaborate and epic vision of an alternate “fourth world” and the inhabitants of a Kingdom known as Borovnia. They begin to act out the dramas of the Borovnians, to the dismay of their parents and their conservative community of Christchurch, New Zealand. When the girls are threatened with separation, they plan to murder Pauline’s mother — in their minds, the main obstacle to continuing their friendship and collaborative artistic relationship — by bludgeoning her during a walk in the park.
These movies, and the crimes associated with them, share a few key features in common: Both have an intense friendship at their core, one that may not be explicitly romantic but certainly exert queer vibrations. Both involve luring a target to a secluded area and executing premeditated violence. Both feature girls at the gateway of adulthood, who should, under most circumstances, be old enough to discern the difference between real and imaginary. Borovnia, the world that Parker and Hulme co-created, existed long before the Internet. Had it been networked, there’s no telling whether or not the girls’ vision of an alternate universe might have caught on the way the Slender Man mythos inspired a robust and prolific fandom. It seems telling that Jackson portrays Borovnia in a rich, hyper-saturated palette to emphasize the intensity of its creators’ imaginations, while the world of Slender Man is often washed out and tinted a very particular shade of grey-green, invoking the sickly screen glow aesthetic popularized by movies like The Ring and The Matrix.
It would be remiss not to mention a gender-swapped version of this true crime trope: The strangling of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who had convinced each other they were Nietzschean übermenschen existing fully above and outside of the law. Twenty-five years later, Alfred Hitchcock immortalized their story with his film, Rope, and Tom Kalin retold it to compelling effect in 1992, with the New Queer Cinema classic, Swoon. At twenty, Leopold and Loeb were recently out of adolescence, though the coming-of-age label is certainly still applicable. Perhaps this is why their common worldview manifested more as an ideological framework based in philosophical theory than a fantasy world overlaying their lived reality.
So, what would have happened if Heavenly Creatures had instead been about a Borovnian villain who crossed over into real-life Christchurch? Or if either Rope or Swoon had centered the Nietzschean character Zarathustra? They, like Slender Man, would have foregone the “secret sauce” that grounds all the best horror in the human realm. By making the Slender Man (a phenomenon that is unanimously understood to be an artist’s construct, albeit one that has taken on a life of its own) into a conventional jump-scare movie monster, it positions the girls as victims who unwittingly invoke him, and heroes who attempt to undo the evil they have wrought. It’s a trepidatious and, ultimately, unsuccessful perversion of the power of the fantasy.
The Slender Man stabbing is not, in fact, the only major crime to be committed in the name of this Internet meme, but it is the most high-profile. There have been assaults, arsons, and even a rash of teen suicides that all cite the influence of this fandom as at least a partial cause. It has now been revealed that after the trailer for Slender Man was released, and in response to public condemnation by the father of Slender Man stabbing survivor Payton “Bella” Leutner, the studio mandated both a PG-13 rating and that large swaths of the movie be removed and re-arranged— which explains how a movie with such a promising crew at the helm still seems to contain numerous discrepancies in continuity and narrative. By choosing to move forward with a movie about a Creepypasta boogeyman while studiously ignoring the real-world circumstances surrounding its mystique, it seemed the powers that be were attempting to have their cake (or cash grab), and eat it, too. Had they waited just a little longer to release their creation on the world, they might have been able to capture the true terror of the Slender Man — his followers — without the accusations of exploitation or the less-than-stellar critical and popular response.
What makes the Parker-Hulme murder, the Leopold and Loeb murder, and indeed, the Slender Man stabbing so disturbing (beyond the particular grisly details of each crime) is not just that the perpetrators were young. It’s that they were influenced by fantasy to commit real acts of brutality. It turns out that the true terror of coming-of-age isn’t that a monster possesses our youth, but that our youth, with all of their high-key, hormonal commitment to the world as they see it, are actually the monsters.